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Want to Learn Linux? Start With Gentoo

Donnie explains why brillliantly here:

In the same way, automated tools suck. They’re great once you understand the black box they hide from you, but ignoring that black box entirely is a route to disaster.

The understanding I have of the Linux operating system today – which admittedly is not worth comparing to what, say, Donnie knows about it – is all due to my early (and ongoing) experiences with Gentoo.

I’ve been known to tell audiences that I originally chose Gentoo because of the community (the nicest and most helpful I’ve encountered thus far) and the quality of documentation produced by that community (it’s absurdly good), and I haven’t been lying. Looking back, however, the single most important impact of my choice has been a greater understanding of the Linux internals. As Donnie says, at some point or another, things are going to break. If you’ve run Gentoo, you’ll understand why, because you’ve built the system by hand.

Most people, of course, aren’t interested in this level of appreciation, content to outsource that understanding to other people. And I suppose I am a bit of an anomaly, since one of the first things I’d do if I won Powerball would be to build my own car. But for those of you that are interested in Linux, there aren’t many better places to start than Gentoo. Even if Jeff tells you it’s like banging rocks together ;)

Categories: Open Source.

  • http://aqualung.typepad.com/aqualung Ric

    Build your own car? You are one sick puppy, Stephen …

  • http://www.michaeldolan.com Mike Dolan

    +1
    +1
    +1

    I was RHCE level when I first started with Gentoo way back when – must admit I felt like I had barely used Linux before the first time I did a Stage 1. The insights you get from installing and managing Gentoo actually builds lifelong institutional knowledge – and that’s why the community is so spectacular.

    I saw Donnie’s post this morning and sent it around to a few others who don’t see why Gentoo is so cool… eventually I’ll get them.

  • Danno

    Well, obviously. This is true in the same way that the best way to learn about programming languages is to write one.

    But it’s not practical, or particularly fun, to put all that learning up front.

    And, of course, an even better way to learn about Linux than to use Gentoo would be to make your own distro.

    I think the real problem is that the black boxes you’re relying on are shitty in their construction. If they were good black boxes, they would never break, they would never do anything except what they’re supposed to do, and unless you were interested in building a black box of your own for another purpose, you’d have no desire to learn how they work.

  • ErikTheRed

    Perhaps if you’d like to scare away anyone new to linux you should first direct them to gentoo. I had such a terrible experience with gentoo my first time I almost gave up on linux altogether. No one wants to sit waiting for a day or so for their desktop environment to compile. Let alone if you’re crazy enough to do a stage 1 install, you may be waiting several days.

    My recommendation: start with Ubuntu. It provides an easy-to-use desktop system, but you can experiment with more advanced stuff if you want to. It also has the best community hands-down. Thrusting a linux newb onto something as complex as Gentoo is a mistake, you’re only going to lose potential users recommending this path.

  • http://lunar-linux.org Florin Braescu

    There are other distros better suited for admins and people who want to learn the internals of a Linux system. I can recommend Lunar Linux for this. It’s aimed for experienced users but it can be used by an average Gentoo user too.

  • http://www.syntaktisk.dk Morten Juhl Johansen

    I am not sure. It depends on the person who does it. I have installed Slackware for talented Linux beginners who wanted a steep learning curve.
    I could imagine it would be tremendously fascinating to build your own system the first time you use it!

  • Pingback: gomez’s blog » Blog Archive » Want to Learn Linux? Start With Gentoo

  • Ashton

    I use Gentoo for all my day to day needs. It works fine for me, only took 3 installs to get it right.

    But, on topic. Gentoo is great, for those willing to put up with it’s quirks. Getting into Gentoo, or LFS is basically jumping off the deep end, as far as computers go. There are only three reasons to do it.

    1. Those that are very picky about their systems (I’m here)
    2. Those that want to learn (I’m still here)
    3. Those that need a very specialized system

    That, as a high school student who has used Windows his whole life, actually having proper and total control over the system is refreshing.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Ubuntu because it tends to “Just work.” But sometimes I feel encumbered by the Kernel that’s designed to accomodate a wide range of hardware profiles, and an overall design that’s pushed more towards medium to lower end users. I don’t feel it’s built to give me the control I want, so I don’t use it. But I feel that it is a great choice for those that don’t want to go nuts over their system.

  • François Bonnet

    I fully agree that Gentoo is great for learning some of Linux’s internals. I hated the BSOD and all these freezes I got with my former operating system, without possibly understanding why. My wife and my daughter are happy to use their gentoo system … but I administrate them. I am not sure they would be willing to learn what is necessary to configure network shares, or even to install a printer.

  • sogrady

    Ric: you mean everyone’s not into that? ;)

    Mike: amen. i’m continually greeted with skepticism (on a good day) when i tell folks about my experiences with Gentoo.

    Danno: have to beg to differ re: the languages question. it’s infinitely harder to write your own programming language than it is to build a Gentoo stage 1 install. re: the black box question, i think they’ll always break. if they’ve built one that doesn’t, i haven’t seen it yet.

    Erik: fair point, but i’m not talking about someone new to Linux. those users, i point at Ubuntu or something similar. but for users that want to learn Linux, i think Gentoo’s an excellent stop.

    Florin: don’t know Lunar Linux myself, but appreciate the pointer. how’s their community?

    Morten: it really is pretty rewarding. when you’ve built it yourself, it’s ideal because you really do know how everything is wired together.

    Ashton: exactly right. the point here is not to diss Ubuntu, SuSE, or Fedora – but rather to say that for a particular type of user, one that really wants to learn the operating system, Gentoo’s a good choice. Ubuntu et al are excellent choices for users that want everything to just work.

    François: definitely agree. i wouldn’t want to present my friends or family with the challenge of administering a Gentoo box. but for learning Linux, it’s a great distro.